In the battle for the spot alongside Joshua Kimmich in midfield double pivot, Leon Goretzka and Thiago Alcântara have given coach Hansi Flick a selection headache ahead of Bayern Munich’s UEFA Champions League campaign.
Before the pandemic break, Thiago played a pivotal role with Kimmich in midfield, most notably in the first leg of the round of 16 fixture against Chelsea in UCL. Since the Bundesliga restart, however, Hansi Flick has stuck with his midfield-buff Goretzka at the heart of Bayern’s play. In Thiago’s absence, Goretzka got the opportunity to showcase his new and improved game.
Through this analysis, we take a look at the difference in their playing styles and the qualities they provide on the pitch.
Distribution and ball playing skills
Thiago’s ability to carry the ball under pressure and beat his marker is simply remarkable. He quickly scans the space ahead of him and, as opponents move out of position to charge on him, he dribbles the ball into that space, often executing his signature turn to escape pressure.
A passer extraordinaire, Thiago can dictate the game with his short crisp passes, split defenses with through-balls or bypass an entire defensive line with his over-the-top balls. He consistently manages to complete 90% of his attempted passes and completes at least 10 progressive passes per 90 minutes (highest in the team, along with Kimmich), as per FBref.
Goretzka may not possess the variety of passes that Thiago does, but he has shown great vision while playing the final pass. Averaging 1.37 key passes per 90 minutes from central midfield, Goretzka can recognize his teammates’ movement up the pitch and serve them with incisive balls.
Goretzka uses quick movements and interplay with teammates to escape pressure. In Goretzka, Flick has the perfect player in central midfield to execute quick defense-to-offense transitions. He can win the ball in Bayern’s half and quickly carry the ball upfield, using his speed and strength to outmuscle defenders in the way.
Nicknamed the “Master Burglar” by the online Bayern faithful, Thiago is famous all around the world for his smooth ball recoveries. One of the reasons he excelled as a deep-lying-playmaker last season was his defensive work. An expert recoverer of the ball, he manages to “steal” the ball from his opponents with great technique, having won 1.93 tackles and made 2.34 interceptions per 90 minutes in Bundesliga this season.
Goretzka adds physicality and grit to Hansi Flick’s side. When the team loses the ball, Goretzka’s long strides and speed help him track back quickly. It is no surprise that Flick often associates terms like “dynamism” and “incredible workrate” with Goretzka in his pressers.
Since returning from the pandemic break, Goretzka has recorded at least 2 blocks and made 2.2 interceptions per 90 minutes in Bundesliga. He knows the various ways in which the opposition can exploit spaces around Bayern’s defense and so he is tasked with protecting the defensive line by filling them.
Role in Hansi Flick’s setup
During the buildup, Thiago often places himself behind the first pressing line. If the team is able to invite pressure from opponents, Thiago can showcase his quality by taking several opposition players out of play with his dribbling. This in turn helps attackers get ample space and time with the ball in the final third.
When the team progresses into the final third, Thiago frequently positions himself as a safe passing option for his teammates. He helps the team keep possession by recirculating it and, if the opportunity arises, he tries to find his teammates with his exquisite through passing.
In the case of the Goretzka-Kimmich pairing, playmaking duties are shared by Kimmich and Alaba. Goretzka stays behind and fills the gap, giving Alaba and Kimmich the freedom to move out of position.
Since pressing is one of the fundamental aspects of Flick’s Bayern, Goretzka’s presence on the field becomes all the more valuable. As the team pushes up to suffocate opponents in the middle, Goretzka provides a larger cover shadow while cutting passing lanes. When Bayern tries to win the ball, Goretzka and Kimmich complement each other with their positioning. Their combined effort makes it difficult for the opposition to breach Bayern’s defense.
Goretzka thrives in the role of an extra attacker. He specializes in getting into the right positions by making well timed runs into the box. He generates immense power in his shots and helps his team capitalize on crosses from wing with his aerial prowess.
Looking at the variety of qualities they provide, it’s hard to declare a clear winner in this duel. Thiago is considered as one of the best midfielders who makes things happen on the pitch with his technical ability. Goretzka, on the other hand, ticks all the boxes for the attributes that are needed to shine in Hansi Flick’s system, bringing much-needed grit and positional discipline to the system.
That said, Bayern has one of the best midfield combinations in Europe in Thiago, Goretzka, and Kimmich. Since each team will have a different style of play in the Champions League, Flick will have two world class options at his disposal while choosing the right partner for Kimmich (provided Bayern progresses to quarter finals).